Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Frank Capra on rapid pacing

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First, I cut out long walks, such as prolonged entrances and exits of actors. I “jumped” the performers in and out of the heart of the scenes.

Second, I cut out “dissolves.” It was a fad of the day to indicate “passage of time” or “change in locale” by slowly overlapping one scene into another; for instance, an actor entering an elevator at the eighth floor “dissolves” into the actor coming out at the first floor; or, a blossom-covered tree “dissolves” into the same tree covered with snow. It was a show-off photographic gimmick that pleased filmmakers but bored audiences. I did away with dissolves by “straight-cutting” from the eighth floor to the ground floor, and from tree blossoms to snow.

Third, I overlapped speeches. To facilitate the editing of sound tracks, it was customary for actors to finish their lines completely before other actors responded with theirs. This is contrary to real-life conversations in which people talk “over each other” all the time. Try listening to three women talk sometime. In American Madness the actors interrupted and overlapped their lines at will.

Fourth, and this was the radical change, I speeded up the pace of the scenes to about one-third above normal. If a scene played normally in sixty seconds I increased the actors’ pace until it played in forty seconds. During photography the speed of the scenes seemed exaggerated—in fact, it was exaggerated—but when American Madness hit the theater screens, the pace seemed normal! Moreover, there was a sense of urgency, a new interest, that kept audience attention riveted on the screen.

This deliberate “kicking up the pace” was a most important improvement in my own technique of filmmaking. Except for “mood” scenes, where urgency would be a jarring note, I used this speeded-up pace in all my subsequent films. Critics have continually commented on the “pace” and “naturalness” and “interest holding” of my direction, but they have never guessed how it was accomplished.

Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title

Written by nevalalee

June 11, 2011 at 1:20 pm

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